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Robot Freedom: Electromobility From High-energy Batteries
The future of power supply production for the robotics industry on display at AUTOMATICA
By Casey Nobile


Forget the Energizer Bunny, the newest generation of high-performance batteries are powering electric cars, renewable energy sources, and the autonomous robots designed to save human lives. These and innumerable other emerging technologies are
no longer trade show toys, they are on the market—with batteries included.

As a result, advancements are occurring in terms of battery size and operating life in support of those fields. Manufacturers are producing advanced lithium-ion batteries with more handling reliability and safety in mind. Higher volumic energy and crash-resistance are additional features being built in for mobile applications.

Automated battery production is key to building momentum in the industry, as exemplified by AUTOMATICA 2012’s special exhibition “Battery Production and Automation Technology” in which 20 companies will collaborate to demonstrate a fully automated production experience. Attendees can view innovation in measurement technology, sensitive grippers, and precise robots all the way to safe human-machine interaction designed for cost-effective production.

Once high-energy batteries can be produced in large series and at moderate costs, the world can expect to see a major improvement in the affordability and acceptance of electric mobility, autonomous robots, and alternative generation of energy, because batteries have a decisive influence on the performance, reliability, and price of those systems.

For example, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the only highway-enabled electric vehicle on the road previously cost more than $100,000. This high cost resulted in large part from the high cost of batteries—a car with a 100 mile range required a battery that cost more than $33,000. By the end of 2013, a comparable 100 mile range battery is expected to cost only $16,000 due primarily to investments in battery production.

Broad Business Potential for Battery Production

Automotive industry

It is no secret that due to high petrol costs and the international spotlight on green living, consumers, industry leaders, and politicians are increasingly adopting both purely battery-driven mobile vehicles as well as to hybrid cars as affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives. At the core of electric mobility is the production of less expensive, longer-lasting batteries. The Energy Department’s $12 billion investment in advanced vehicle technologies alone included $2.4 billion to establish 30 electric vehicle battery and component manufacturing plants.

NASA missions

The U.S. military is interested in autonomous robots that can operate for 10 hours on batteries, and NASA’s space missions would hugely benefit from longer-lasting batteries, said Allen Sirota, the supervisor of the robotics hardware group at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Lab.

The lab developed the robotic rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, that are currently roaming around the surface of Mars—years past their expected fail date. While rigged with solar panels, the rovers remain dependent on batteries, as the meager solar energy they receive needs to be gathered for energy-intensive operations.

Factory/warehouse applications

Some autonomous robots are already in use today as factories and warehouses have begun employing the machines to move materials with little human guidance.

High-tech start-up Kiva Systems has designed an entirely different take on the modern warehouse that uses self-coordinating robots as “movable shelves.” Kiva‘s robots run low on charge after eight hours, after which they automatically return to charging stations. Longer lasting batteries would allow their warehouse systems—which have been adopted by high-profile clients like Zappos, an online retailer—to use fewer robots, lowering costs.

“Our ideal batteries would cost similar to lead acid, charge as quickly as ultracapacitors and last as long as possible,” said Mitch Rosenberg, Kiva‘s spokesman.

Health care

In the coming years, people are most likely to begin directly interacting with mobile, autonomous robots in more familiar settings, like the hospital and road. Health care in particular is pushing the industry forward with robot-assisted surgery, which is used in delicate operations on the heart, brain and prostate, for example. In the United States, some 200,000 robot-assisted surgeries were conducted last year.

A tradeshow first: twenty companies collaborate to demonstrate a fully automated production experience.

Automatica’s revolutionary exhibition

In response to this booming application field, AUTOMATICA 2012’s “Battery Production and Automation Technology” exhibition will show the complete production environment of batteries: from material manufacturing all the way to complete battery packs. The “virtual factory” of RWTH Aachen, where visitors can forge their own model factory as well as interactive 3-D models of the production structure round out the comprehensive overview of battery production.

“We are creating an overall context for setting up a complete factory with the overlapping topics of measuring, inspecting, security, control, building engineering and factory planning. This has never been shown at a trade fair in this way in the past,” said Dr. Michael Wenzel, Managing Director of Reis GmbH & Co. KG in Obernburg and Chairperson of the VDMA trade association Robotics + Automation.


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About the author

Casey Nobile is the lead editor for Robotics Business Review’s RBR50 news, editorial and business segment. She is also contributing writer and editor for the publication’s News & Technology columns with special emphasis on breaking news coverage for science, technology and financial transactions. Casey is also editor and contributor for other in-house publications: Robotics Trends; RoboBusiness and RoboBusiness exhibit services.

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